After Death, People Come and Touch Your Things
Maya Ciarrocchi is a Bronx-based interdisciplinary artist whose work addresses identity and the body as a site of history. Her LABA project is Site: Yizkor, is an installation comprised of architectural renderings, shtetl maps, and Yizkor, or memorial, books. The work traces the lost and forgotten spaces left by the dead and questions how and why people, cultures, and identities disappear, especially among marginalized communities. The prose vignettes are written collaboratively by Ciarrocchi and anonymous contributors, the drawings are Ciarrocchi’s. The work is excerpted from her coming exhibition, February 2 to March 3 in the gallery at the 14th Street Y. Reception on February 7, 7-9pm.
Mrs. Rose, née Braca, died in her apartment some time in the winter of 2015. She was 98 or 99, a radio star of the 1930s. Her stage name was Lynne Howard.
I knew her as a frail figure who walked the hallways for exercise.
They came and cleaned out her apartment. First her children, then the neighbors, then the professionals. This is what happens with death. People come and touch your things. They keep them or throw them in the fire. Why have things at all? Is your spirit held in these objects? When they are burned, buried or crushed, is your spirit released?
Who honors the spaces left by the dead? Mrs. Rose occupied a space. She filled it with her history and the history of her ancestors and the canvasses of her dead husband Herman. Elia Braca Rose, a Jewess who adopted a gentile name, as you do.
The village of O. was surrounded by forests. To the north, near the built-up area of K., silver-leafed birches cast their shimmering light for several miles.
In front of Shulim the Butcher’s shop, a path led to a hill through a series of idyllic groves, which, through the ages, had witnessed the birth of many a youthful romance.
Along the western way there was a pool, where, in summer, the herds of cattle would come to satisfy their thirst. From there, you would follow a wide sand road to the hamlet of S.
The playground in Washington Square Park, my playground, was wood and steel and sand. Monolithic wooden structures of a reddish-brown wood, massive splinters in certain high-traffic areas. Bolted together with cold, silver rivets. A steel dome of interconnected pipes, easy to climb up and easy to fall through, from a great height. The sand always broke your fall, but it still hurt. A treacherous place, truly. It was where I learned to get back up, to build up speed, to be alone. It’s gone now, safer and more colorful. The sand hides fewer treasures.
Dense and varied, the forest spread for miles. There were trees of all kinds with many different forms, colors, and delicate scents. When you walked through the forest heading north you eventually arrived at S., a little village which drew its subsistence from the woods around it. During the summer, women picked myrtle and mushrooms that they would then bring back to sell in the market.
These forests were the favorite place of the young. They would spend summer evenings and Saturdays there. The forest also served as a venue for political activity, legal and otherwise. All the ingredients for romance and adventure could be found there.
Stuart lived on Morton. His window was to the left of the entrance and there was a wire metal cage around it. I looked down into his apartment from the sidewalk. Across the street were brownstones. I think he had geraniums blooming one summer.
The kitchen and bathroom were in the back. They were small and dark. It had a basement.
He had a closet with clothes hanging on two racks, one over the other. He made quilts and dyed things. He constructed costumes on the table or on the floor between the empty fireplace and the couch he used as a bed.
He had lots of rocks and crystals. I took some of them, maybe all. Also, a small gold-bound book of prayers. Also his brown linen jacket. I wore that jacket for years until the lining ripped. I had another jacket copied and made. I wore his linen green shirt too until it fell apart at the seams.
Before he was sick, he was a big man, not big heavy, but tall and muscled from dancing.
He gave me Shiatsu on a mat on the flowered rug on the small expanse of floor in the front of the fireplace.
He died, and we came and divided his things. We had the memorial at St. Luke’s in the Field. We planted a star magnolia. It’s gone now.
The fresh air attracted many people. Whole families in search of a healthy environment would come from far away in old carts laden with their baggage.
Some enterprising minds tried to capitalize on this custom. Ephraim Rosentzveig created what we would today call vacation cottages, twenty wooden huts where you could rest and get yourself a strictly kosher meal.
Chaskiel Bursztyn built a group of cottages which he would rent for the season — The Bursztyn Villas. Hersh-Yoissef Kleinmintz opened a new kind of restaurant to serve all these vacationers. Thus, when young people of O. arrived on Saturday, they could be sure of finding a sandwich or a bowl of chicken broth and noodles.
In July 1939, the rabbi also made his summer quarters in the S. forest. Every day his followers would make their way out to pass the day in his company. They sat around little tables especially built for them and immersed themselves in the study of the Gemara.
One day, this holy man was suddenly struck ill while commenting on a sacred text and expired in the presence of his disciples. Overcome by grief, they placed his body on a cart which they pulled back to O. themselves.
The loft was a popular gathering place for artists writers and musicians who lived in the East Village. The building had been a school, so the stairways were wide, and the steps were marble. Huge windows overlooked Tomkins Square Park and at the parties he held, people would cluster around them for the views. The bookshelves were tall and there was a ladder that rolled on a track for access to the upper reaches. Roland was an impresario of sorts; he knew everyone in the neighborhood, and they came to his home to talk, drink, and enjoy the openness, since most of us lived in more cramped circumstances.
Shloime Lederverg, lived in the S. forest all through the year. To make ends meet, he rented a part of his house to vacationers every summer. At the start of the German occupation, Shloime was arrested by the Gestapo after being denounced by a Polish neighbor eager to take over his house. A survivor said he met Shloime in Auschwitz — but also said he did not last long.
A love seat in my mother’s apartment
She was a widow
it was golden and worn
my father died decades earlier on another continent
velvet, gold, worn
a love seat
last time I saw it
it was on the sidewalk behind
The apartment building — with the couch and lamps — waiting to be picked up by sanitation
I took a picture
which I look at